The official report probably is months away, but there’s little question that excessive speed played a role in the deadly Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, Washington last week.
Investigators say the train, which was making its inaugural run on a new route between Seattle and Portland, Oregon, was traveling at close to 80 mph as it approached a curve with a 30 mph speed limit. Three people died and dozens were injured as rail cars spilled onto Interstate 5.
Does this scenario sound familiar? It should.
Two years ago, another speeding Amtrak train crashed on a sharp curve in Philadelphia, causing eight deaths and 200 injuries. Two years before that, four people were killed when a speeding commuter train derailed in the Bronx, New York.
None of these trains was using positive train control, a computerized safety system that monitors speed and can stop a train that is traveling at an unsafe speed.
This system, long advocated by the National Transportation Safety Board, was supposed to be in placed on all trains operating in the United States by the end of 2015. But the deadline was extended three years, and some railroads may get another extension until 2020.
Here’s some good news for riders of the North Bay’s new commuter rail system: SMART already operates with positive train control.
So do the freight trains that use the same tracks in Sonoma and Marin counties.
The $50 million system, which relies on global positioning satellite technology and a fiber optic network, was in place before SMART started regular operations, making it the nation’s first commuter rail system to have positive train control in place on Day 1. In fact, one reason service didn’t start sooner was the need to ensure that the system functioned properly.
If a train is heading into a curve too fast, gets close to a preceding train or is at risk of a head-on collision on a shared track, an 85-decibel signal goes off in the cab. If the engineer doesn’t respond quickly enough, the computer takes control and can stop the train before it reaches the danger zone.
“In theory,” SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian told the Editorial Board, “every potential accident can mitigated.”
The NTSB, which is investigating the Dec. 18 crash in Washington, started pushing for positive train control in 1969. But railroads were opposed, citing expense and complexity. It was only after a train crashed into a car stalled on a Los Angeles rail crossing in 2008, killing 25 people, that Congress adopted the recommendation.
As of Sept. 30, positive train control was in place on 24 percent of the nation’s passenger rail systems and almost half of freight lines.
Most trains in Northern California are expected to have the system in place by the end of 2018, according to a report this week in the Sacramento Bee, which also disclosed that a near-derailment near Davis a year ago occurred when a train headed into a 30 mph zone at of 78 mph.
A positive train control system was in place on the tracks in Washington, but it wasn’t yet operating.
It’s too late for a safety system to help those passengers. And it’s past time to end the delays and implement positive train control before the next speed-related disaster on America’s rails.